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When Isabella Pieri's mom died from a rare disease two years ago, the 11-year-old not only lost a parent — she also lost the person responsible for helping her with her hair.
Her father, Philip Pieri, attempted to take over, but admits he had no idea what he was doing. That was always his wife's area of expertise. So an unexpected figure stepped in to help out: Isabella’s bus driver, Tracy Dean.
"It would get so tangled up — I didn't know how to take care of it,” Pieri told TODAY Style over the phone. “And then, finally, she got mad at me and wouldn't let me touch her hair anymore, so I said, 'The only way we're gonna get that big of a mess out of it is just to cut it all off and start all over again.’”
So he chopped Isabella’s hair into a crew cut, something that he admits she was not happy about. "I don't know how to take care of long hair, so I kept telling her either you've got to comb it out or we've got to cut it short,” he said, noting that it would wind up in tangles when it grew longer. “It's an ongoing issue for probably the past couple of years back and forth.”
“This was the least I could do,” Tracy Dean said of styling Isabella's hair.
Dean took notice of Isabella’s tangles when she was first assigned to drive the school bus on her route last year. “I didn't want to hurt her feelings because she just got out of bed and pulled her hair back into a ponytail, but I wanted to pull her aside and say, ‘Hey, let's brush your hair out,’” she told TODAY Style. “But I didn't know how to do it without hurting her feelings.’
After more than a year of riding on Dean’s bus, Isabella noticed that the driver had been helping a fellow classmate style her braids before school every morning. She eventually approached Dean and asked if she could have help with her hair, too. “Isabella just said, ‘Hey, will you do mine if I bring a brush?'" Dean recalled. "And I was just thinking to myself, 'Oh thank you, Lord.'"
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Isabella’s situation hit close to home for Dean, who has four children of her own and was diagnosed with breast cancer seven years ago. “Your life sort of flashes before your eyes when your doctor tells you you have cancer,” she said, pausing for a moment to hold back tears. "Everything runs through your head with your kids … I wondered who was going to help? My youngest daughter (was in) sixth grade, and so I wondered, who was going to do her hair? Because I didn't know if I was going to live or die.”
When Dean learned Isabella had said goodbye to her own mother at such a young age, she wanted to do whatever she could to help. “This was the least I could do,” she said.
Isabella, who’s favorite hairstyle these days involves two braids at the side of her head pulled into a ponytail, now has tangle-free hair halfway down her back. Thanks to Dean's instruction, she's learning to care for it — and even style it — on her own.
“I was nervous, but I was also happy at the exact same time,” Isabella said of the first time she approached her bus driver for her help. "I was nervous because me and Tracy didn't really know very much about each other, but now we're best friends forever and ever.”